Europe Tilts Rightward

Revisiting Past Horrors

Radioactive: Austria's Joerg Haider, photographed at a Jan. 13, 2002 rally against the Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech republic (Photo: AFP). 

Her mysteries are as ancient as the annals of thought. Maybe this is why the ancient Greeks preferred to turn Clio into a goddess. Inscrutable, she always surprises us in the end. From Heraclitus’ unrepeatable instant, to Vico’s ascending spiral, to Hegel’s teleology, to Braudel’s “long duration.” Cyclical repetition or human constants?

But, perhaps through vain hope, we have never abandoned the idea of a linear progression of stages and, therefore, of moving beyond our past horrors. Could we be fooling ourselves?

After the horror and immediate shame of the Holocaust came waves of critical explanation. Maybe these were meant as vaccines against intolerance so that something similar would never happen again. But the lesson and warning are still current. National Socialism arose in one of Europe’s most educated countries. Weimar Germany’s economic woes could  become justifications for xenophobia, racial persecution, genocide, or the idea of ethnic cleansing. Nothing could justify it, but nevertheless, in a matter of months, persecution-driven fascism swept half of Europe.

Ten years ago [Jean-Marie] Le Pen looked like a mere madman. In 2002, he defeated the aged and divided French left. Another bell toll was Jörg Haider, whose eccentric Freedom Party today co-governs Austria.

The Northern League in Italy was viewed, at its birth, as a local and temporary aberration of that nation’s complicated politics. Today it co-governs with Silvio Berlusconi.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, extreme-right parties are seeing precipitous gains in local elections. Even in Denmark, as Mario Vargas Llosa noted last Sunday, this brand of politics has already captured 12 percent of the electorate.

Fortunately, neo-Nazism hasn’t grown too much in Germany. Immigration strictures in Germany have a long history.

Since Sept. 11, the right is in control of a third of the European Parliament. The tally of heads of state gives eight socialists or social democrats against seven on the center right or conservatives.

But we are speaking of another sort of right wing. This right wing is composed of authentic fascists who have found a fairly fertile pasture. Their supporters are workers and people with low incomes.

The syndrome they all share is a sense of threat. Brussels threatens them by imposing unification policies that have affected their products, leaving them unable to compete in an open market.
Their jobs are no longer stable, flying across borders according to the whims of their employers. They perceive their customs threatened by the presence of other cultures.

The movements opposed to unification and globalization have found a new rich political path: a new radical nationalism.

Unemployment, say the radicals, is due to the presence of immigrants. This is a very visible enemy, but the numbers show us that, as we Mexicans already know, immigrants are given jobs unwanted by local populations. Moreover, with population growth decreasing in several European nations, immigration will have to continue. They need those young arms prepared to do almost anything. European unemployment has other roots.

The radicals say that violent crime is also explained by the presence of immigrants. Naturally, violence does take place among immigrants, but this is not even remotely the explanation.

In addition, growing xenophobia against certain immigrant groups, particularly those from North Africa and Turkey, has created additional tension, as occurred in El Ejido, near Almería, in the south of Spain. Populations that did not take part in violent actions against immigrants now do, in Holland, Austria, and Italy.

First comes: “They are taking our jobs, our peace, our space, our customs.” Then: “France for the French,” cries Le Pen, drawing powerful applause. Haider, [the rightest Belgian party] Vlaams Blok, [Vlaams Blok’s] leader Filip Dewinter, [the leader of Italy’s Northern League] Umberto Bossi, and others join in the chorus.

Lebensraum, the Nazi idea of living space, is, unbelievably, reborn. From here to the tightening of borders is only one step. Once accustomed to this idea of life, the search for purity is not long in coming. The rest of the story is well-known.

Where is the democratic left that should balance out this madness? The “division generals” of the left in France, Italy, and elsewhere leave no doubt as to what they really do. Divided, they open the path for the Northern League, to Haider, to Le Pen, and to all who would follow.

The radical right is working within the democratic system, as occurred partially in Germany. There are no surprises or concealment. Le Pen has been yelling the same things for years. Formal democracy lacks safeguards against these phenomena. If liberal ideals—of civil rights, equality of individuals before the law, pluralism and respect for others, tolerance—do not have deep roots, democracies may become empty shells. Regressions? A warning is never a lie.